from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2002, Issue No. 75
August 12, 2002


Declassified intelligence data may revive a twenty year old debate about whether or not the Soviet Union introduced chemical weapons into Southeast Asia.

In 1981, the U.S. State Department claimed to have evidence that the Soviet Union had supplied toxic chemicals for use against anti-Communist insurgents in northern Laos. The chemical substance, reportedly deposited by aircraft as a streaming yellow liquid, became known as "yellow rain."

A scientific investigation of the allegations led by Matthew Meselson (sometime chairman of the Federation of American Scientists) concluded that they were in error, and that "yellow rain" was nothing more than... bee feces.

The ensuing controversy over yellow rain was remarkable for its bitter, vituperative tone which persisted over a number of years in various journals and newspaper editorials. And it's not quite over yet.

"Although the general public assumed the Yellow Rain allegations had been laid to rest, the U.S. government never retracted them," writes Jonathan B. Tucker of the Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies in a recent article.

"More than 20 years later, the controversy has yet to be fully resolved. One reason is that much information supporting the U.S. government's case has not been publicly released because of the need to protect sensitive intelligence sources and methods," says Tucker.

He does cite two new pieces of evidence. One is a declassified CIA estimate which indicates that the Soviets had indeed developed and weaponized chemical agents similar to those allegedly used in yellow rain. On the other hand, he notes reports of a June 2002 storm near Calcutta involving yellow-green colored rain caused by the feces of bees which had consumed the pollen from local mangoes and coconuts.

"Given growing concerns over the proliferation and use of toxin weapons, however, clarifying this historical controversy--ideally, through the declassification of additional U.S. intelligence documents--is of more than academic interest," Tucker prudently concludes.

See his August 5 article "Conflicting Evidence Revives 'Yellow Rain' Controversy" here:


Dr. Lyle B. Borst, who died July 30 at the age of 89, was a principal founder of the Federation of American Scientists.

"You have heard eminent scientists," Dr. Lyle B. Borst told a House caucus in 1945. "You now hear a nobody."

As a "nobody," Borst was not a household name. But he was an effective representative of hundreds of other "unknown" physicists who went on to form the scientists' movement for arms control.

On November 1, 1945, he was one of the four scientists who convened a press conference in Washington to announce the establishment of the Federation of Atomic Scientists, which soon became the Federation of American Scientists (following "acrimonious debate," naturally).

Dr. Borst played a significant role in the Federation's first successful campaign to ensure civilian control of the nation's nuclear weapons program through the enactment of the McMahon bill, which became the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.

See his obituary in the August 12 New York Times here:

The early history of the atomic scientists' movement is recounted in "A Peril and a Hope" by Alice Kimball Smith (Univ of Chicago Press, 1965).


"When U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled last Friday that the names of hundreds of immigrants detained after Sept. 11 should be made public, she touched off a political firestorm," wrote Sharon Otterman of United Press International. See her article "D.C. judge in center of storm," August 9:

The online availability of public information about U.S. military facilities is reportedly causing concern to some military commanders. See "Internet good friend to terrorists" by John Diedrich in the Colorado Springs Gazette, August 11:

A sidebar examines the public availability of high resolution satellite imagery in "High-quality satellite photos no longer limited to military" here:

"Leaking may be a pain for decision makers, but it is necessary for our democracy, especially on issues of war and peace in a government that is becoming more and more secretive," writes historian Richard Reeves. See his August 10 essay which argues that "Leaking is Necessary to Counteract Government Secrecy":

"It would be a tragedy if the United States -- the world's leading democracy -- charted a persistent path away from a recent global trend toward greater access to government information," writes John C. Bersia in an opinion piece in the August 12 Orlando Sentinel. See "Tilt Must be Against Secrecy":

"A year after the terrorist attacks temporary emergency actions have evolved into fundamental changes in the public's right to know," writes Mary Graham in the September issue of The Atlantic. "Restrictions [on information] have been driven as much by familiar politics and bureaucratic instincts as by national security." See her article "The Information Wars" here:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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